When Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City was published in 1984, it took the publishing world by storm and earned him permanent membership in the 1980’s club of young edgy writers dubbed “The Brat Pack”. Bret Easton Ellis (Less Than Zero, American Psycho) was the other founding member. Bright Lights, Big City follows the emotional, psychological, and spiritual downward spiral of a young would-be writer in the fast-lane of the mid 1980’s Manhattan club scene. His wife has left him, his job as a fact checker at a prestigious but snooty “New York” magazine oppresses him, and he lives in a cocaine-addled twilight zone. The first chapter, entitled “It’s 6 AM, Do You Know Where You Are?” begins:
You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. But here you are, and you cannot say that the terrain is entirely unfamiliar, although the details are fuzzy. You are at a nightclub talking to a girl with a shaved head. The club is either Heartbreak or the Lizard Lounge. All might come clear if you could just slip into the bathroom and do a little more Bolivian Marching Powder. Then again, it might not. A small voice in side you insists that this epidemic lack of clarity is a result of too much of that already.
Confessional stories about people on the descent, whether into madness, depression, dissipation, alcoholism, or any other form of self-destruction are a genre unto themselves that was not invented by McInerney. In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield tells us about his own drive toward that cliff from which he hopes to protect all the children. In The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath’s Esther Greenwood descends into suicidal depression. In John O’Brien’s Leaving Las Vegas, Ben Sanderson literally drinks himself to death.
What makes McInerney’s novel unique both then and now is that it is entirely written in second person. “You,” the reader, are character in the story. It is a testament to McInerney’s talent that he wrote a whole book in this unusual still and managed to pull it off.
Present tense, in your face…
The book is also written in present tense, which although is nowhere near as unusual as writing in second person, is still fairly uncommon. Present tense gives a piece of writing a sense of immediacy and places the reader in the middle of the action.
Point-of-view is probably the most critical choice that a writer will make in telling a story. It not only determines how the writer will envision the story – what parts of the narrative are known and what have to remain hidden – but also how the reader experiences the story. A first person story told in past tense, as most are, can be more contemplative and reflective. The “I” in the story is not only the narrator as a character, but also the voice of the narrator at some point in the future, after all of the events in the story have occurred. Presumably, the narrator has been changed in some way by the story he or she is telling, so we are hearing the story from that changed perspective. When Nick Caraway, begins The Great Gatsby with “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since,” he has already witnessed and participated that riotous and tragic Long Island summer. He knows everything that will happen and can tell the story with an objectivity that can only come with reflection.
In a first person present tense narrative, there is no reflection, no contemplation. Everything is immediate and there is no second voice, wiser by having gained the experience of the story we are reading. It’s a very constrained mode of storytelling, nearly as constrained as play, but it is very effective in telling certain kinds of stories. We live our lives not knowing what will come next and the only wisdom we have in the present is what we already have, not what we will gain in the future. There is no possibility for objectivity at all. That lack of insight and wisdom can make present tense narratives uncomfortable for both writer and the reader alike. It is that discomfort in the storyteller’s voice at not knowing what’s coming next in the storyteller’s voice keeps the reader on edge.
“Natural Selection,” my story in the current issue of Cantaraville is written in first-person, present tense for that very reason. It’s a dark, downward spiral kind of story that was in part inspired by Bright Lights, Big City. I wanted the reader to be on edge, knowing that my narrator is headed for bottom simply by what’s going on in the story, but not knowing what’s going to happen next. I cheated a few times and told some back-story in past tense flashbacks, but the driving force of the story is meant to be immediate and in your face.
“Natural Selection” is about a corporate layoff that has ironically become more timely now than when I first started writing it four years ago. Even when I finally completed, last fall’s economic meltdown that has thrown millions out of work was still unimaginable. Given long submission-rejection cycles and long lead times, some stories take years to get published. Stories written before “Natural Selection” are still on their journey out into the world.
In July of 2005, I attended my first writing conference, The New York State Summer Writer’s Institute at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York. The writing teacher for the second week of my fiction workshop was Gish Jen. Prior to registering for the workshop, I hadn’t heard of her, so I ordered her collection, Who’s Irish, and read it before attending the conference. Gish Jen is an amazing writer. An American of Chinese descent, she writes with wit and sly humor some of the most deeply moving stories I have ever read. “Birthmates,” the second story in the collection was selected by John Updike for an anthology titled The Best American Short Stories of the Century, and aptly so. It’s an incredible story and I immediately felt intimidated. How on earth had my pitiful writing sample gotten me accepted into a class taught by her?
I was still in awe of her the second week of the workshop when Jen took over. My work, excerpts from my work-in-progress novel, had been reviewed during the first week when we were lead by Elizabeth Benedict. Jen began by going around our circle and asking us to introduce ourselves, as we had during the first week. Most of my fellow students were young graduate students, studying creative writing or literature. When my turn came, and I said that I was a software engineer, it piqued Jen’s interest and she started asking me all about what I did and where I worked. I was a road-warrior consultant at the time and Jen said “my husband does that.”
As I said, I was awestruck at the time and it was only later that I made some mental connections to “Birthmates,” a story about a down-on-his-luck computer guy, working for a down-on-it’s-luck software company, attending a tradeshow. When I first read the story I found it refreshing. All too many pieces of literary fiction have protagonists who are editors, or architects, or college professors or any other profession that serves as a substitute for “writer.” I fall into that trap myself. Jen’s computer guy was outside the norm for literary fiction. I was also struck by the accuracy of the depiction of down on his luck computer guy’s life on the road and the mind-numbing reality that is a technology tradeshow. They aren’t that way at first, but after attending them year after year, they all blend together into a cacophony of bluster, hype, and desperate boredom. Jen captured it perfectly and after looking at her educational background I wondered how: BA from Harvard, MFA from the Iowa Writer’s workshop, Harvard Faculty. No visible experience in the software business. She must have accompanied her husband on a trip to a computer tradeshow or two. Or three.
It was during a class break one day later in the week that we were talking about this and she told me that given my background, I owed it to myself and my readers to use it in my writing I was unique, both working in the corporate and technical world and having a literary mind.
My initial reaction was, “God no!” I try to keep my writing life and my professional life as separate as possible. My summer vacations at the writer’s institute were meant to be a purifying ritual away from the life I had made for myself.
“Who are you pissed at?”
During the previous week, Elizabeth Benedict and I had been talking about using personal experience as inspiration for fiction. “Who are you pissed at, Fred. That’s your story.” I don’t think she meant it to mean writing fiction as a means of revenge, even though I have to admit that’s sometimes to hard to resist. But for any any sensitive introspective literary type, there’s only one truthful answer to the question, “who are you pissed at?”
A few weeks later, considering the advice of both my teachers, I began writing a story about a software manager reaching the end of his rope, so to speak, professionally and personally. Like countless others, I have had the experience of both laying off employees and being laid off myself. I can’t say that I’ve learned anything by either experience other than that it’s psychologically and emotionally traumatic and you don’t really ever get over it. It becomes part of the baggage that you accumulate in the course of living a life.
The story was very hard to write and I tended to avoid working on it in favor of other less intense pieces. I had chosen first person, present tense for all the reasons outlined above, which contributed to difficulty get through the first draft. I finally finished the first draft two years later in one all night writing session. It was due a few days later at Skidmore for that year’s conference. I was so emotionally drained by it, actually repulsed by it, that I couldn’t read it. Instead, I just printed it out, stuffed it in the envelope and sent it out without even proof-reading it, thereby subjecting the workshopto thirty pages of raw anger, embarrassing typos, comma splices, and run-on sentences.
I absolutely hated the story. I despised narrator even more even more than the other characters, most of whom were despicable in their own unique ways. Nonetheless, it was in the mail and was going to be photocopied and distributed and analyzed a month later in the workshop no matter how I felt about it. I was just going to have to sit there, grit my teeth, and get through it.
A month later when the story finally came up for discussion, the class saw some things that I hadn’t, which is what I look to a workshop to do for me. It’s kind of like showing a movie to a test audience. They were hesitant to comment at first, but after I assured them that the ending was complete fiction, they opened up. My narrator was certainly a bit of a creep, but not a completely unsympathetic one. They found the title, “Natural Selection,” to be a recurring theme in the story in ways that I hadn’t realized. They picked out some recurring themes about family that I hadn’t noticed. There was more to the story than I had originally thought.
Now, a year and a half later, the story has been published. Between then and now, millions have lost their jobs. For me, it has confirmed that I got at least one thing right in the story. It’s shattering, it’s traumatic, and it breaks you. And after you put yourself back together you’re not quite the same and you can’t quite figure out why. It is one of those demarcation lines in your life defining a before and an after.
“Natural Selection” was originally published in Cantaraville and is now included in my first short story collection, Indian Summer and Other Stories.
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